No mistake – a midsummer pipe dream

Mistakes are integral to this life. It is what humans do…. and a pipe dream, to imagine a world without mistakes?
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager

If we couldn’t be sure we were in a ‘silly season’ here in London with the hiatus surrounding Boris Johnson’s exit from Downing Street, the red alert for extreme heat certainly got our attention.

But then only a few weeks earlier we may have been thrown off course when, in a radio obituary for the late Peter Brook, a BBC journalist recalls London’s National Theatre pioneer as having directed Sir John Gielgud in ‘A Midnight’s Summer Dream.’ I am no literary scholar, but it instantly struck me he did no such thing.

I’m pretty certain neither Shakespeare nor Gielgud was in the punk rock band, The Stranglers.

In TV news, ‘obit packages’ are compiled weeks, even months in advance of the inevitable sad event. Filed and ready, these archive reports are updated as-and-when – and checked.

I was curious – was I only half listening to the weekend news bulletin? Hours later, I listened again. The line in the news piece ‘Brook/ Obit’ had been corrected to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Doubtless, it didn’t take six hours: listener calls, emails, tweets …producer taken-outside-and-shot.

Mistakes (I’ve made a few) are integral to this life. It is what humans do, right – and a pipe dream, to imagine a world without mistakes? Our technical malfunction, you might say.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

What if Boris hadn’t said: “There were no parties” …Trump hadn’t said: “We’re going to walk down to The Capitol.” Or if BP CEO, Tony Hayward hadn’t added: “I’d like my life back” (he was doing OK ahead of that). The thought is sobering enough for them, but it is magnified for all those impacted by their lines in the moment. Incendiary – like a discarded bottle in the heath.

“And when we put a foot wrong do we learn from all the pain” (yes, Stranglers, not Shakespeare).

The smart move (with those examples above) would be to simply not say the line in the first place. Choosing words very carefully – and hearing them back – can seem a neglected practice, and yet most probably the best use of anyone’s time today.

And so, it was through a summer of high drama, calamity and 40C heat as we saw Europe burn; firefighters doing their utmost, sweltering beneath their kit; spokespeople also on the level as they fronted up to camera crews. It is in the moment of such escalatory events, under extreme pressure and heat tolerances that adrenalin kicks in – and a fire chief, a police commander or medical responder can say the right thing. And then some…

“Yesterday was London Fire Brigade’s busiest day since World War II.” Headline stuff. But consider the gravity of events: at least a dozen major fires; some 40 homes, a nursery and a church destroyed; four boys drown after jumping into rivers; and London is left with just three available fire appliances. The line works because – in the public psyche, national memory and alarm – it is accurate.

The same goes in any crisis: if an incident deserves more than a webpage statement then perhaps it is time to step up. The best spokespeople understand the situation, the changing context or public mood. They know what they are going to say, because they are well prepared to inform, to reassure their audience, and add a measure of compassion. They are believable.

If the situation changes, further details emerge – or you find you were simply wrong from the outset, then update – correct the record. Mistakes are human; a correction can atone.

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